Director : Marc Forster
Screenplay : David Magee (based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Johnny Depp (Sir James Matthew Barrie), Kate Winslet (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies), Julie Christie (Mrs. Emma du Maurier), Radha Mitchell (Mary Ansell Barrie), Dustin Hoffman (Charles Frohman), Freddie Highmore (Peter Llewelyn Davies), Joe Prospero (Jack Llewelyn Davies), Nick Roud (George Llewelyn Davies), Luke Spill (Michael Llewelyn Davies), Ian Hart (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Early on in Marc Forster's Finding Neverland, there is a shot that neatly summarizes the film's view of Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie and his relationship with the rest of the world. Using the widescreen frame, Forster shows Barrie and his dour wife, Mary, stepping into their separate bedrooms. They open their doors simultaneously, and we notice that Mary steps into darkness whereas Barrie steps into a glorious, almost ethereal light--the amalgamated glow of innocence, whimsy, and imagination.
That is the stuff Finding Neverland thrives on. The film's grand theme is the power of imagination, and first-time screenwriter David Magee, working from the aptly titled play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, readily deploys his own, finding the perfect embodiment of pure, unbridled imagination in J.M Barrie. This is not the Barrie of historical record, of course. A slight, mustachioed, asexual Scottsman, the historical Barrie was a strange eccentric who achieved his own immortality by creating the great modern myth of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. As embodied by Johnny Depp, looking fresh-faced and well-scrubbed and nowhere close to his actual age of 40, the film's Barrie is a pleasant man-child who embodies the best of both worlds: He maintains the exuberance and whimsy of childhood, but without the lack of responsibility.
According to the film's myth, Barrie's 1904 play Peter Pan was inspired by his interaction with the four Llewelyn Davies boys (in real life there were five)--Jack (Joe Prospero), George (Nick Roud), Michael (Luke Spill), and, of course, Peter (Freddie Highmore)--whom he met one afternoon in Kensington Gardens. Their mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), is a widow who is constantly being hounded by her high-society mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), who cannot abide by her daughter's lax discipline and housekeeping. Barrie immediately identifies with that predicament, as his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), seems primarily interested in social climbing and doesn't seem to understand her husband at all.
The childless Barrie slowly ingratiates himself into the Llewelyn Davies family--becoming "Uncle Jim"--much to Sylvia and the boys' delight and much to the chagrin of Mary and Emma, who are pitched as mirror images of each other. In playing fantastical games with the boys in which they imagine they are cowboys and Indians or pirates on the high seas, Barrie finds the inspiration for his greatest leap of imagination, what would become Peter Pan. He's coming off a flop, and the theater impresario for whom he works (Dustin Hoffman) is not particularly excited about Barrie's new play about dogs and fairies and children. It turns out to be a hit, of course, because the whimsy of childhood always trumps the frugality and seriousness of the adult world.
Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) banks on the ability of romance to trump reason, and for the most part he succeeds. He mixes fantasy and reality, cutting back and forth between Barrie and the boys playing and slightly surreal visualizations of what's happening in their collective mind's eye. He turns Barrie's story into a melodramatic weepie, as death constantly invades the Llewelyn Davies household, threatening the precarious innocence of childhood.
The film certainly elides many aspects of the story, particularly by ending when the boys are still children and thus avoiding the ugly truths about their deaths, which include one dying in World War I, one suspicious drowning, and, worst of all, Peter throwing himself under a train. It also all but dispenses with any notions of sexuality, casting a blind eye to Barrie's theorized impotence. After all, for a man who seems to love children so much, it's never explained or even hinted at why he doesn't have any of his own.
These are the ugly realities of life, and Finding Neverland is not interested in such messiness. That doesn't make it a bad film, but rather a whimsical one that tries to shine the brightest possible light on its subject matter. It's relentlessly optimistic, even when tragedy strikes, which is seen as yet another opportunity for imagination to win the day. Some may see this as naive, while others will see it as a bid for hope against the crushing wall of cynicism. To the former, Barrie had imagination; to the latter, only delusions.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Miramax Pictures